May 5, 2011

UnCensered: Brattons' Potential for Greatness Will Remain Forever Untapped

by Joel Censer |

Shamel Bratton, UVA's all-time leading scoring midfielder, will have his legacy marred by getting kicked off the team as a senior for repeated rules' violations.

© Greg Wall

In the blink of an eye, the 2011 lacrosse season is already on the back stretch. Personally, it feels like just yesterday that it was October and I was driving out to cover the Play for Parkinson's fall ball event in Alexandria, Va.

Thinking back to that balmy fall day in Northern Virginia in which I got an early glimpse of Army, Georgetown, Princeton and Virginia, what struck me most was the genuine optimism emanating from each sideline.

That preseason buoyancy was probably most evident from the Wahoos, who at the time seemed predestined for Memorial Day glory. The Cavaliers weren't perfect that day. They threw the ball away a little too much on offense, had some clearing miscues and a couple defenders who looked a little green.

But any deficiencies seemed overwhelmed by a certain swagger and a whole host of elite midfielders who could run by their guy. In an era where that's something of a novelty, Virginia coach Dom Starsia seemed to flaunt the Wahoos' luxury and scoff at specialization by starting three versatile, offensive-minded short sticks (Chris LaPierre, Rhamel Bratton and Rob Emery) on the opening faceoff.

Of course, in hindsight, that fall-ball bravado later turned into lighter fluid.

Half a year later, the Cavs, losers of four of their last six games, are 9-5 and last week kicked star midfielder Shamel Bratton off the team and suspended twin brother Rhamel indefinitely for repeatedly violating team rules.

Personally, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed that we will never again see Shamel and potentially Rhamel in a Cavalier jersey.

Like most people in the lacrosse community, I was intrigued when I first heard rumblings coming out of Long Island about two twins with a lethal split-dodging routine that would make the Gaits blush.

What followed -- the New York Times feature story, a grainy highlight video on YouTube filled with the Brattons' Huntington football, basketball and lacrosse highlights and accompanying magazine covers -- only made the spotlight shine brighter.

Shamel was able to establish himself early as an elite midfielder and offensive savant. As a sophomore, he scored 31 goals, dished out 11 assists and helped lead the Cavs to an NCAA semifinal appearance. A year later, he recovered from a hamstring injury to again garner first team All-American laurels and bring the Wahoos a goal away from the national championship game.

The southpaw wasn't perfect. Maybe it was an overreliance on his left hand (unlike, say, Paul Rabil, who could shoot better with his offhand) or that he was a little too turnover-prone, or that at times he had trouble hitting the cage.

But senior year is a time when midfielders often make the leap. Think Graham Gill, Kyle Dixon and Max Seibald. Shamel Bratton, after effortlessly dropping four goals on Syracuse long-stick midfielder Joel White earlier this season, seemed like he was ready to include himself in the century's pantheon of great midfielders.

Rhamel Bratton remains suspended indefinitely.

As for Rhamel, people often forget that two seasons ago he was trying to come back from a back injury. Critics openly questioned whether he was destined to be anything more than a lifelong d-middie.

But he answered the bell, became a big-time first line midfielder and forced teams to either bump another long pole up to cover him or slide early.

Yet as much as I've enjoyed watching the Brattons -- and as much credit as I give them for continuing to improve and play well (despite weighted expectations and quick-sliding defenses geared to stop them) -- it's hard for me to find fault with the team's decision.

What happened off the field in Charlottesville almost exactly a year ago meant evaluating even the most ancillary causes to ensure that it will never happen again. The fact that Starsia and the rest of the program have taken their self-imposed higher standards seriously -- seriously enough that they are willing to part ways with two superstar players who choose to continually ignore them -- should be commended.

This is not meant to compare the Brattons' misbehavior with the tragic murder of Virginia women's lacrosse player Yeardley Love, allegedly at the hands of her ex-boyfriend and former Virginia men's lacrosse player George Huguely. From what has been reported, the twins did not commit any crimes, or do anything much different than a large percentage of your average 22-year-old college student population.

But in context, it's easy to realize why this year's Virginia team would need to make certain sacrifices -- and why the Brattons, despite their on-field contributions, would get suspended and eventually booted when they did not follow suit.

While I agree with the decision, I still lament it. As a lacrosse fan, I was looking forward to finding out if the twins had the mettle and fortitude to help comensate for the shortcomings the Wahoos have on defense and lead the Cavaliers past the NCAA semifinals for the first time since 2006.

Now we'll never find out.

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